The Francois Tomb, Vulci

Tomba Francois

Period: 350-330 BCE

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Located in the Ponte Rotto Necropolis in Vulci, this elaborate underground tomb has an exceptionally long dromos (27 metres), which leads to an enlarged chamber leading to the entrance of the tomb. This leads to a large central hypogeum (atrium) which is roughly T-shaped, A succession of 7 chambers lead off the atrium with the principal tablinium chamber directly in line with the entrance, and three others leading off from either side. An additional three ediculae lead off the dromos.The walls of the atrium are richly decorated with subjects ranging from the Illiad to Etruscan battle scenes. The upper panels show hunting scenes and mythological animals. A square labyrinth meander, painted in 3 dimensional perspective, separates the main panels from the upper mensola, which depicts geometrical patterns. A single element of this meander pattern is repeated in the architectural form of the high vaulted ceiling. Doors have feint pillars and architraves. The murals were detached on the orders of Prince Torlonia shortly after their discovery, and were relocated to the Museo Torlonia. Since 1946, they have been stored at the Villa Albani in Rome as part of the Torlonia collection.

Above: Tomb Entrance and ceiling of main chamber

The tomb is important because it gives an unique snapshot of Etruscan and Roman history during the early days of Rome. It confirms the later version of history given by the Emperor Claudius in the Lugdunum tablet, in which he describes the Etruscan version of the story of Servius Tullius (Mastarna).

The Francois tomb is so named after its discovery in 1857 by Florentine archaeologist Alessandro Francois and French historian Adolphe Noël des Verges, author of "L'Etrurie et les Etrusques". Des Vergers gives us an exciting account of the discovery of the Francois Tomb. He writes how Francois began his search by the ancient Ponte de Badia, which spanned the River Fiora. After days of fruitless searching through rough thicket, Francois and Des Vergers finally came upon an opening filled with rubble, hidden under moss-coated scree. After careful examination, Francois came to the conclusion that it must lead to a large undergound tomb.

After summoning a gang of workmen from Montalto di Castro, work commenced on removing the debris from the tunnel. The long excavation continued, and a 'cippus' or tomb marker was found, with the inscription Ravnthu Seitithi (TLE 303), the name of a woman of the gens Seities. Francois then tells of one evening when the excavation supervisor explained to him that there had been a cave-in,and expressed doubts about being able to proceed. Francois went on to explain, "The next day I had a hole bored through the middle of the debris. Then I lay down full length on the ground and worked my way through the entrance. After I had gone about 3 metres, I was able to lift my head and I lit the torch I had brought with me... Soon I found myself in an underground room carved out of the travertine rock, and about 4-5 metres high."

After making his way back to daylight, Francois ordered the opening to be enlarged, and then, together with des Vergers and some workmen, he returned to the dromos. The unforgettable moment of his great discovery came when, wrote des Vergers, "at the last stroke of the pick the stone that closed the entrance to the crypt yielded, and the torchlight shone upon vaults whose darkness and silence had remained undisturbed for more than twenty centuries."

The world of the Ancient Etruscans was revealed to them, almost untouched from the day that the tomb had been sealed. Des Vergers wrote, "Everything was in the same state as on the day when the entrance was walled up. Ancient Etruria appeared before us as it was in the days of its glory. The warriors lying in full armor on their beds seemed to be resting from the battles they had fought against the Romans and Gauls. For a few minutes their shapes, clothes, stuffs, colours were visible. Then everything vanished as the outside air penetrated into the crypt, threatening to extinguish our flickering torches. It was an evocation of the past that was briefer than a dream and then faded away, as if to punish us for our reckless curiosity."

Spellbound, the two men lingered, stirred by the magic of this bygone world. Then, as after a little while their eyes became accustomed to the gloom and they began to gaze around the deep underground chamber, there came the second surprise, no less exciting than the first.

All around, the walls of the tomb were covered with frescoes. They depicted scenes of bloodshed and cruelty, scenes of furiously fighting men and of slaughter. On the left wall from the entrance were (left to right) Ajax (aich) seizing Cassandra (cas'ntra) at the altar after the capture of Troy, Phoenix (Phenuis)- the mentor of Achilles, Nestor King of Pylos, and the fratricidal struggle of Eteocles and Polynices from the seven against Thebes legend. On the entry wall, to the left appeared the execution of the Trojan prisoners, the human sacrifice offered to the soul of the dead Patroclus. Achilles was shown in the act of carrying it out. He had plunged his sword deep into the neck of a youth whose eyes seemed frozen with terror and pain. All these were scenes from Greek legends and the subject matter was nothing new, with the exception of the Etruscan underworld deities Vanth and Charu(n).

Click on the image to enlarge sections

Copies of the Tomb frescoes by Carlo Ruspi (Click to show extant sections.)
Click on the image to enlarge sections

...but the frescoes continued on the right of the entrance wall. And here, suddenly, were pictures of a totally unknown subject matter. Amazed, François and his companions looked at the faded paintings. They too depicted a scene of carnage. Ten warriors, some bearded, others clean-shaven, were fighting, eight of them in a murderous hand-to-hand struggle. Here too men fell dead under the sword. But what exactly was this event that the artist had recorded? What was the meaning of this picture in an Etruscan tomb? (See below)

Tomb Occupants

Vel Saties. Click to enlarge

The Instoria Guide to the Francois tomb (Italian language) shows some of the bronze grave goods recovered from the tomb). The far right of the atrium, adjacent to the door of chamber 5 depicts the aristocratic figure of Vel Saties, He is wearing a laurel wreath and a purple garment, similar to the descriptions we have of the toga picta, worn by victorious generals during the Roman Triumph. The garment is embroidered with nude dancing warriors holding shields and brandishing spears, possible precursors to the Salii or dancing priests of Mars. His fixed gaze observes the imminent flight of a swallow, about to be released by the kneeling Arnza (Little Arnth). A similar ceremony is described by Cicero (de Div. ii.34).) as an 'auspicium'or an 'ex avibus' augury. Another image on the right side of the entrance is unclear, but shows a similar figure to Vel Saties, but with his right arm outstretched.

The inscriptions in the atrium (Chambers 2 and 3. on the tomb plan) give us the names of some of the other tomb occupants. Two women of the gens Tarna(s), possibly previous wives of Vel Saties accompany him to the underworld. Other occupants of the tomb include Thana Tarnai daughter of an unknown Saties (tarnai thana satial sec). Larth (or Laris) Mura(s), son of Arnth and an Arnth Muras, probably his father. We also have mention of other members of the Saties family, including Laris Saties, son of Larth, possibly in chamber 10, Thanchvil Verati, an aristocratic woman was found in chamber 5, as attested by a painting on the impasto door, which disintegrated while being relocated in the 19th century. All this points to the possibility that the tomb was in use for two to three generations of Vulcians. The frescoes throughout the tomb date to approximately 330-310 BCE, and a large red figure amphora found in Chamber 7 dates to 400BCE. Unfortunately many of the rich grave goods, which included bronzes and ceramics, were sold during the 19th century to private collections, although some remain with the Torlonia collection. Some may be viewed in the Etruscan collection of the Louvre in Paris.

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Summary of Fresco Locations – refer  


Location on diagram

Vel Saties

Left side of Chamber 5 entrance

Thancvil Verati

On the door to Chamber 5 (originally plastered over)

Heroes from Vulci

Right side of Chamber 3 (Looking towards Chamber 7)

Execution of Trojan Prisoners

Left side of Chamber 3

Mastarna and Aulus Vibenna

Right side of Chamber 7 entrance

Etiocles and Polynices

Right side of Chamber 8 entrance

Phoenix and Nestor

Either side of Chamber 9 entrance

Amphiaraos and Sisyphus

Right side of Chamber 4 entrance

Ajax and Cassandra

Wall between Chambers 1 and 10.

Left:Chamber 7, showing feint polychrome blocks, Right: Tomb as it stands today with murals removed.

Significance of the Etruscan Battle Scenes

At the time of the discovery, François had no idea of the significance of the Etruscan battle scenes. Excited as he was by the events of the day, he could not at that moment suspect what an important and unique discovery he had made, that it was these very wall paintings which threw light on the most obscure period of Rome under the kings.

It was only years later, when the inscriptions on the frescoes had been deciphered, that the meaning of the scenes became known. The artist who long ago had painted the burial chamber had put these inscriptions over the heads of the combatants in Etruscan lettering. The vault contained the only depiction of an event in Etruscan history that was already known at the time. Here were the clearly outlined figures of a long forgotten past. To the great surprise of scholars, two of them were identified by the very names which the emperor Claudius had mentioned in his speech, namely, Caeles Vibenna and Mastarna. But surprising though it was, the name Macstarna could only mean that the fresco portrayed Servius Tullius, the Roman king.

The Etruscan artist had captured a moment of high drama. He shows a group of armed warriors, led by Ma(c)starna, who have just brought off a surprise attack. They have burst into the sleeping enemy camp where one of their own leaders, Caeles Vibenna, is held prisoner. None of his captors has had time to seize a weapon, and thus the attackers succeed in rescuing their comrade.

Above: Macstrna (After Carlo Ruspi)

The fresco depicts Caeles Vibenna holding out his bound hands to Macstrna, who has tucked his sword under his left arm and with a dagger in his right hand is cutting the prisoner's bonds. Alongside these two tall, bearded figures, a furious melee is going on. The enemy is being ruthlessly slaughtered. Slashed and stabbed, they are sinking to the ground in streams of blood. Among them are both Romans, recognizable by their clean-shaven faces (Is this a valid conclusion?), and bearded Etruscans. The name of each and the town he comes from are carefully written above victims and aggressors alike. Reading left to right, Aulus Vibenna (Avle Vipinas), brother of the liberated Caeles, thrusts his dagger into the chest of a warrior (Ventikau..) whose home town (..plsax) is indecipherable. Two of his comrades are killing Etruscans from enemy Etruscan cities: Rasce is killing Laris Papathnas Velznach (from Velzna or Volsinii) and Lars Ulthes is killing Pesna Aremsnas Sveamach (from Sveam or Sovana). A third, Marce Camitlnas, who is presumably Vulcian or an ally of Vulci, is shown plunging his sword into a bearded man like himself. The inscription identifies the victim as Cneve Tarchunies Rumach, that is to say, Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome, possibly a relative of the king.

Thus the inscribed frescoes in the Vulci tomb depict the victory of the brothers Vibenna and of Mastarna over a hostile coalition in which such important Etruscan towns as Volsinii and Sovana were allied with Rome. There must previously have been a battle in which Caeles Vibenna, here shown at the moment of liberation, had been defeated and taken prisoner. But did the event recorded in the fresco actually occur during the lifetime of Servius in just this way? The historicity of the Vulci frescoes continued to be disputed until one day another discovery was made.

During the excavation of the Portonaccio sanctuary in Veii, the stemmed foot of a large bucchero vessel with an Etruscan inscription was found. The text, in archaic Etruscan, reads "mini muluvanece avile vipiiennas"(TLE 35) - Avile Vipiiennas (Aulus Vibenna) dedicated me. The inscription dates from the first half of the sixth century B.C. It shows that a certain Aulus Vibenna had deposited a votive offering in the Veii temple during the lifetime of Servius Tullius.

This discovery, together with the paintings in the François tomb, made credible an old, often doubted tradition. According to that tradition (Tacitus and Festus), a group of Etruscans led by Caeles Vibenna and his brother Aulus had settled on the Caelian hill in Rome. Tacitus (Annales, 4.65) states that "It may not be out of place to state that the hill was originally named the "Querquetulanus," from the abundance of oak produced on it, and only later took the title of "Caelius" from Caeles Vibenna, an Etruscan chief; who, for marching to the aid of Rome, had received the district as a settlement, either from Tarquinius Priscus or by the gift of another of our kings. On that point the authors disagree: the rest is not in doubt--that Vibenna's numerous forces established themselves on the level also, and in the neighborhood of the forum, with the result that the Tuscan Street has taken its name from the immigrants."

Apart from this, there are numerous Etruscan references to the Vibenna brothers, including a mirror from Bolsena (Above: 3rd Century BCE, British Museum), carved with the names of Avle and Caile Vipinas. Here they are shown attempting to steal the sacred texts from the Apollo-like seer Cacu, known from Latin sources as a legendary figure of early Rome, accompanied by his acolyte Artile. This story is further reinforced by illustrations of the same theme carved in high relief on four cinerary urns, two of which came from Chiusi.


The tomb frescoes may be interpreted at various levels. J.R. Jannot interprets the bloody scenes as being symbolic of blood sacrifice, and ascribes it to the Etruscan belief in the revitalizing effects of spilt blood.There is evidence that the funerary games (precursors of the Roman Spectaculae) were originally performed at large funerals to placate the gods. Pallottino in Etruscan Art describes it thus: "In the paintings of the tomb, the evocation of Hades is indirect, transposed into the mythological domain. The painter preferes to depict the violent death and the tragic destiny of the famous heroes."

There is an apparent allegorical implication from the use of mirrored scenes within the tomb. As we walk into the entrance of the tomb, the battle between Etiocles and Polynices from the 'Seven against Thebes' story is mirrored on the left by the later Etruscan conflict between Marce Camitlnas and Cneve Tarchunies Rumach. The connection here may be the conflict amongst 'brothers'. Walking into Chamber 3, the right wall showing the heroes from Vulci is mirrored by the sacrifice of the Trojan prisoners, again implying a historical analogy, and reflecting a preordained destiny. The other subjects of the murals are superficially a strange choice, and not often portrayed in association with each other. However in each case, the common theme is that of destiny and the inability to change the course of the re-ordained destiny that the Etruscans believed in. We see Sisyphus, founder of Corinth, who dared to interfere with destiny by chaining up the God of death, Thanatos, so that the deceased could not reach the underworld. As a result of this, he is forced to roll a block of stone against a steep hill in Hades, which tumbles back down when he reaches the top. Then the whole process starts again, lasting all eternity. Nestor, despite his diplomatic efforts was unable to change the preordained destruction of Troy. Phoenix, despite his advice to Achilles was unable to prevent his destruction. Cassandra, although gifted with foresight, could not persuade anyone to prevent the pre-ordained destruction of Troy.

To expand on the theme of internecine conflict; in this earlier period of history, we had conflict between the Etruscan states, with Tarquinia, Volsinii and Sovana pitted against Vulci and Camars, and while the Etruscans were fighting amongst themselves, the Romans were growing strong. It's a sad tale of lost opportunity.

Vel Saties himself looks very grim as he is about to watch the flight of the bird in the auspicium. The clear message is that the future would be grim (He was right ). The present time and the future would hold little of value, so the tomb theme focusses on the glorious past instead.

This is a very unusual and very important tomb, but the theme of warfare was commonly depicted in later years, particularly on cinerary urns from Volterra and Chiusi, which often had variations on Greek mythology depicted on them. It was not entirely unique in terms of the portrayal of historical events from the glory years. The Tomb of the Ship in Tarquinia is another example which harks back to the glory days of the Etruscans.

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